The First Death Gurgle Bursts From Mass Marketing

Terry Heaton, who said all media companies are actually in the advertising business (rakish and bold, IMHO) now thinks that the times are a-changin’:

The suggestion that an institutionalized hegemony such as mass marketing could possibly be collapsing is, I’m sure, laughable to many, and while I’ll admit to a certain proclivity towards the provocative, I don’t wish to be considered a loon. There’s no question that advertising is in disruption, but the extent to which that disruption impacts commerce isn’t really understood. Mass marketing is based on certain (often inflated) assumptions that can no longer be trusted, so our faith in it can’t be more than paper thin. This impacts media vastly more than anything that’s disrupting media content, for it strikes at the very core of our business. Along with our emerging networked world comes the very real threat (to some, blessing to others) that the marketing of the old is becoming impotent and no longer able to “move the rocks” that it once did.

A blessing indeed! While his essay seems to spell gloom and doom for the numerous spammers and marketing “gurus” who pollute my online content, it’s one of the most joyous pronouncements I’ve heard about web communications.

The Web disrupts hierarchical cause and effect, and no profession needs that like marketing. Its essential purpose is to cause something to happen, whether that’s through clever public relations management or spending enough money on advertising. The first tool in a marketer’s toolbox is the ability to generate a desired effect. The Web disrupts this many ways. One, any claim made can be immediately checked. Two, the people receiving the message are connected with each other and can explore any claim that way. Three, people can launch convincing counterclaims, just as competitors can. Four, people can talk back to the claim and let others see it at the same time. Five, people can hide from or otherwise ignore the claim. I’m sure there are others, but the point is that traditional branding and other marketing concepts don’t work online. The Web is a direct marketing marvel, but the profession hasn’t figured out how to do that in an age when its targets — the elusive consumers — aren’t cooperating.

Now, doesn’t that just make you want to gleefully wiggle your fingers like a diabolical wrench in their works?

Heaton goes on to point out the exclusiveness of marketing’s goals (deliberate) and social networking (or “word of mouth” marketing). To say the latter isn’t concerned with a business’s interest in promoting their service or product is an understatement – there is absolutely no profit-motive or incentive when consumers share their experiences. The practice is mutually beneficial between users, and their goals mutually exclusive with business. This seems like something that should have been obvious from the  beginning but is still enlightening.

This is why social and new media is much more adaptable to the goals of non-profit, political, and otherwise socially responsible organizations. Normal people aren’t interested in selling each other Burger King, but they do care about a clean environment and other issues.


Public Ignores War, Normalizes It

I was going to title this post, “Media Ignores War, Normalizes It,” but I realized that wouldn’t be accurate. Read on for the truth:

Bill Boyarsky made the point a few days ago that we’ve forgotten the war in Afghanistan, an argument we’ve ironically forgotten others have made.

The truth is in the numbers. Boyarsky cites Pew to write the following:

Remember the war, the one in Afghanistan? The recent Memorial Day weekend forced the news media to briefly focus on it. But otherwise the war and its heavy toll have faded from our national consciousness, leaving President Barack Obama free to continue the combat without much pressure to get out.

Just how forgotten the war has become is revealed in the latest news coverage report of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The project gives its findings in a nonjudgmental, just-the-facts manner, no how maddening they are. The Afghanistan War didn’t make the top five stories covered in newspapers, online or on cable and network television for the period May 16-May 22.

Now, I can’t find the report he mentions here. But I can find plenty of other information that demonstrates the obvious truth that this is nothing new.

Timeline of media coverage of Afghanistan

The spike corresponds with President Obama’s decision December 1st, 2009, to send 30,000 extra soldiers to Afghanistan. At that time, other leading news stories included the ongoing economic crisis, Tiger Woods, White House party crashers and the health care debate. Notice that at its peak, Afghanistan only accounted for 9.5% of the “newshole”  (available content in news media). That news actually followed  findings by Pew stating support for continued US troop presence in Afghanistan was declining.

But other spikes exist as well – in July 2010, the topic of Wikileaks led to a jump in coverage that accounted for 7% of the newshole.

On a July 27 NBC newscast, correspondent Andrea Mitchell reported that inside Washington, the big question was “whether this is a game changer” in terms of U.S. war strategy. In the same report, Obama was quoted downplaying the new information, declaring that “these documents don’t reveal any issues that haven’t already informed our public debate on Afghanistan.”

Of course, Wikileaks itself led the coverage. As anyone can remember, despite very good work by the Guardian and others, the content of the leaks have been less relevant to the popular media than the ethics of their release – an ironic twist of convention due to the subject matter, as Obama himself makes clear.

Most recently, the killing of Usāmah bin Lādin has created renewed interest in the topic. During the week when 69% of media coverage was devoted to the death of bin Lādin, of the 42% of viewers expressing heavy attention to the topic, 39% were interested in “the impact of the killing on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.” This still pales next to the numbers of  those interested in

  • “The chance of a terrorist attack on the U.S. in retaliation for the killing of the al Qaeda leader” (57%)
  • “how the military raid was carried out” (44%)
  • “whether Pakistan knew or should have known where bin Laden was hiding” (44%)

After the killing, optimism among the public raised but there was still no more support for troop coverage (those figures have steadily dropped over the past year, and groups like Rethink Afghanistan have done an excellent job of tracking and publicizing those numbers)

The News Cycle

Now, this pattern of remember/forget/remember isn’t something Boyarsky is unfamiliar with. It’s just another convention of journalism. Audiences make a lot of demands of their news providers – they’re fickle that way.

Deepwater Horizon trending results

Remember the oil spill in the gulf last year? It’s not that there’s no more story. It’s that most people are tired of hearing about it. As Mother Jones reports,

The Gulf oil disaster largely disappeared from the headlines last August, after the well was finally capped and the federal government declared that most of the oil was “gone.”

For Gulf coast residents, though, the nightmare was just beginning. A year later, business hasn’t come back for many in fishing and tourism, and the compensation check from BP still hasn’t arrived. In the areas closest to the shores, people are reporting health problems consistent with exposure to chemicals. Dead turtles, dolphins and fish are still washing ashore. So are tar balls. So while most of the country has moved on, a number of Gulf coast residents have been in DC over the past week to tell decisionmakers one thing: It’s not over.

It’s not that the news media has a short attention span: it’s that we do. Here’s the trending results from 2004-present on Afghanistan:

They’re slightly more inflated than “Afghanistan war”, but I thought it would be interesting to note the same peak and overall shape. For such a long, dare I say, “forgotten” issue like Afghanistan, it takes immediacy and new events to return it to the public’s attention. Haiti and Japan are two recent foreign examples of natural disasters which, because of the magnitude of events, entered the news cycle here, and eventually drifted and faded in the same manner as the Gulf Spill.

There is plenty of people out there who say that the media shortens the attention span of its audience – I believe, to some degree, it’s the other way around. Michael Newman at University of Milluake-Wisocoson wrote this:

…much of the cultural concern with diminishing attention spans over the past few decades requires a nostalgic projection of how our minds used to work before modern technologies came along and corrupted us. There is a dystopian rhetoric that runs through much of the thinking about advanced media technologies and their social effects. If only we could get back to that idealized past before the invention of the transformative machines. This is fantasy of unattainable authentic experience. Buying into it might help us manage our anxiety over the changes that accompany the introduction of new media technologies.

I’m more inclined to believe that the news industry caters to the latent wishes of it’s audience, which creates a self-perpetuating  lack of focus towards long-lived issues or complex topics. America’s historical counterpart to Vietnam (now our second-longest war)  remained in the public awareness  because of  well organized antiwar efforts and the social effects of the draft on the general population.  The immediacy of those effects relates to President Obama’s 2009 decision to send 30,000 troops. Americans care about issues when they have personal effects. “When will my spouse come home?” “Will my child have to serve another tour?” This is why Rethink Afghanistan’s campaign of focusing on the American dead is so effective. It’s undoubtedly why people in Louisiana still “care” about the BP spill, Japan and Haiti still “care” about their disasters. Caring seems like the wrong word to use though. Because it implies that if we don’t want the war in Afghanistan in the news cycle anymore, then we don’t care about the dozens of Afghanis killed every month of our continued involvement – unless perhaps an American was killed as well.

Critical Thinking Takes a Hit

In the last post, I talked about how journalism’s conventions lead to pacification of public discourse: torture, with its radically offensive nature, is rebranded and mollified via the term “enhanced interrogation.” This way, controversial topics have the ethical implications stripped from the record of events: a tricky aspect of journalism, as it makes history more opaque (to the benefit of the elites who benefit from that ambiguity).

These arguments in the public are uncomfortable, but they are necessary. It’s how we determine the limits to our society: without an authentic ethical framework, we are left with either self-serving opportunism or interpersonal chaos. Here, I’m talking about both institutional and personal ethics. And the only way we can develop either is through the discussion. As we know, the government and other groups don’t necessarily want to advocate a particular viewpoint at the expense of others, but that doesn’t mean they should squelch the conversation.

I was invited to give presentations at two middle school assembly programs in New Hampshire, followed by an evening community talk, based on my book, Most Good, Least Harm, which explores ways in which we can each make choices in our lives that do the most good and the least harm to ourselves, other people, other species, and the environment.

…I thought it went well. So did the teacher who’d invited me who was thrilled by the response of the enthusiastic and fully engaged students. Imagine our surprise when ten minutes after the presentation we found out that the second one was canceled. The principal – who’d come in a few times during my presentation but wasn’t able to attend the entire talk – felt it was too political and called ahead to stop me from speaking at any other school that day.

I asked to speak to him to find out what aspects of my talk he thought were too political. He could barely make eye contact with me. He was so anxious and upset. He told me that there were some words I used that were political, such as “war,” “healthcare” and “illegal immigrants.” While he admitted that I didn’t discuss current wars and the politics of them; health care reform or the various opinions about it, or the debates over how to handle illegal immigration, the very mention of these words was, he felt, too political. He worried that the kids would go home and share things from the assembly (whether accurately relayed or not) that would anger some parents.

The rest of the article is well worth reading, and raises the issue of critical thinking where passivity seems to be the norm. It also echoes points made by a former teacher of mine:

…a stable political system is an undemocratic political system, i.e. a stable system gives the illusion of choice and the illusion of unpredictability. When journalists’ reporting helps stabilize a political system they are harming democracy.

Call it mythology. Call it master narrative. Call it bad journalism.

The cure: Journalists must be custodians of fact and operate with a discipline of verification. That means questioning EVERYTHING (including the system itself).

Alexander Spirkin‘s Dialetic Materialism says,

The original form of world-view was mythology, the imaginal and basically fantastic, generalised reflection of phenomena in which a certain general idea is thought of in personified, symbolical, sensuously concrete, plastically vivid and hyper trophied form, as in the fairy-tale. But whereas the fairy-tale is accepted as pure invention, the myth is regarded as something real.

Spirkin here is inadvertently coming to our current dilemma. While he uses it as a stepping stone to importance of philosophy/ethics, he gives the public too much credit for being rational.  Dr. Cline’s accusations against “bad journalists” are spot on – it is easier to peddle in the logical fallacies of media frames than it is to present truly unbiased truth. As Howard Zinn said, “Objectivity is impossible, and it is also undesirable.”  Undesirable because of our ability to use information to pursue our aims – which we all have. Transparency, not objectivity, should be our modus operandi.

Mythology is an organization of symbolic images and narratives metaphorical of the possibilities and fulfillment in a given culture at a given time. Mythology is a metaphor.”
– Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey, p. 139

Without transparency, we have to pretend to be objective. But since we’re incapable of that, we inevitably develop the popular mythology which expresses our values. If we are honest with ourself about ethical dilemmas, which are real and need to be argued, then the media’s rationality will inevitably lead to a healthier popular mythos. We can’t always expect the public to exercise critical thinking, especially when the prospect of abandoning popular beliefs makes some paranoid. But we should never discourage it, either actively, or by depending on the easy outs.

The Effects of Flexible Morals in the Media

I’d like to start this post in a similar fashion to a previous post: When is it OK to torture people?


But of course, that may just be my opinion – and soon I could be in the minority.

A new study by the American Red Cross obtained exclusively by The Daily Beast found that a surprising majority—almost 60 percent—of American teenagers thought things like water-boarding or sleep deprivation are sometimes acceptable. More than half also approved of killing captured enemies in cases where the enemy had killed Americans. When asked about the reverse, 41 percent thought it was permissible for American troops to be tortured overseas. In all cases, young people showed themselves to be significantly more in favor of torture than older adults.

This echoes an earlier infamous study by the Pew Forum in 2009:

Currently, nearly half say the use of torture under such circumstances is often (15%) or sometimes (34%) justified; about the same proportion believes that the torture of suspected terrorists is rarely (22%) or never (25%) justified.

The study had interesting dynamics with concern to religion, and the Pew Forum noted that white evangelicals were more likely than mainline protestants and religiously unaffiliated people to say torture could be “often or sometimes justified” when used against “suspected terrorists” –

But there are only small differences across religious groups in the number saying that torture can often be justified, and among every group there are relatively few people who say that torture can never be justified.

…Those with a high school diploma or less education are somewhat more likely to say torture can be justified compared with those with at least some college…

Pew’s conclusions then said that “party and ideology are much better predictors of views on torture” than other factors.

With regards to the most recent poll results, others have already begun to blame the nebulous “media.” It is one feasible explanation, but the sort of culprit Dave Grossman or Myrna Blyth would also chose from the lineup – despite their expertise in “killology” or commercial women’s publishing (respectively), they’re just as ignorant of media effects as the witness is of the criminal they try to recognize. They can identify familiar characteristics, but there is always reasonable doubt.

While it’s true that news organizations are guilty of peddling the “enhanced interrogation” newspeak, this terminology originated with the establishment. Wikipedia notes that it’s unclear where and when that term came into current usage, but  interestingly it identifies a 1937 Nazi document in which the term is used to describe  torture which leaves no physical evidence (On a side note,  the guidelines for those techniques are strikingly similar to some of the literature from current US practices). While the media have unfortunately and predictably fallen in step with this language, in this case the chickens are most definitely hatching from those eggs laid by the government.

I’ve used Tolkin’s pointed response to Muller before, but I’ll reference it here by reiterating it: language is a “disease” of mythology. It is how we continuously assert meaningfulness in an otherwise absurd world – words like “honor” or “fiscal responsibility,” are the dog-whistle keywords which serve to both frame a discussion and trigger a set of emotions within the audience. They contribute positively or negatively to our mythos: the use of “illegal” for instance, recently shapping the immigration debate. The “war on terror,” imbued with chivalrous overtones of honor, a term which ran away with itself and is now discouraged within the administration (who prefer the less recondite yet lackluster “Overseas Contingency Operation”).

Journalism’s approach to the topic of torture has divorced us from it’s reality (with the very unique exception of Christopher Hitchens, whose experience was itself presumably quite different from that of a “suspected terrorist”). If we talk about torture at all, we use clinical and abstract terms. By nature this practice is intended to inflict psychological distress and harm (much less physical jeopardy) – but we have no impression of the experience. It’s like a conversation about war without the inevitable PTSD. This approach is uniform with an exception – whenever we refer to torture conducted by others.

In light of these truths, a study from Harvard last year should have be no surprise: The American press redefined waterboarding as something other than torture once it’s use by US officials entered the news cycle. Adam Serwer was keen to identify this as a “convention of journalism” – moral absolution on behalf of the press, masquerading as presupposed objectivity. With this condition of moral flexibility by our “fourth estate,” is it any wonder that younger people find torture acceptable? The Times is the “paper of record,” as they say. When the Grey Lady continues this behavior (see pg 20) consistent with being an amoral, antisocial old crone, how are her children to learn the values she claims to have no business teaching, yet is forever echoing?

Mass media is a tool by which the literate create modern mythologies which both cement political agendas and inexorably determine the future social climate and popular ideology (see the entirety of the Cold War and its reverberations today) . It is the messenger we shoot when we blame the media. Yet, the medium of those messages becomes complicit when it pathetically cowers under those pretenses which serve to  invent the establishment newspeak. When we blame the media, we should not only identify who is at fault, but the sentiments which motivated them, the interests served by those failings, and who sought to gain from those propaganda efforts.

Now, none of this serves as an argument against torture. My reasons for why torture is never acceptable are best left for another post, and I wouldn’t presume that everyone would share the same opinions or ethics. So there will inevitably be a range of diverse perspectives on the topic. But I’m arguing those perspectives should be honestly and accurately represented, where they can be debated and discussed. The current practice is to sequester any relevant ethical dilemma from current events, so that political establishments can continue their policies, while maintaining a status quo of confusion of apathy among the public.

The Red Cross’s survey is a frightening alarm which illustrates the dangers of such malleable moral and ethical standards. Remember Karl Rove’s imperial hostility to the “reality-based community“? Do we really want to live in that fantasy world of “Lingua Tertii Imperii“? The implications are terrifying beyond what any fear-mongering demagogue can lead us to imagine.

“Happy” Memorial Day

Another nationalist holiday, another year of war.

What can I say that others haven’t already said?

What can I write that wouldn’t be repeating the obvious?

Instead of the long rambling post I would typically write, I leave you with the following:

  • Iraq War Casualities: Visualizing the Dead. While this Google Earth layer excludes the civilian and enemy casualties, suggesting the priority of American dead, it fits with the tradition of Memorial Day to ignore all the death we’ve caused, lest that attention be at the expense of the soldiers from home who are also buried in the same Earth.

    click to enlarge

  • This visualization (now 5 years old, from the NYT) of just a few of the wartime dead.

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

  • And what I consider the most important statistic of all:

click to enlarge

After nearly a decade in Afghanistan, years in Iraq, and as we move into Libya, is it really a “Happy” Memorial Day?

Marketing: Capitalist Mysticism

A while back I wrote about how a visit to an Apple store was like entering a “strange, hollowed temple of a cult.” In light of that I’d like to bring to your attention the following posts from Neuromarketing:

When you stick a big Apple fan in an fMRI machine and show him Apple images, his brain lights up in the same areas associated with religious belief. And, according to a BBC TV show, one of the scientists associated with that study proclaims, “big tech brands have harnessed, or exploit, the brain areas that have evolved to process religion.” A typical example of the press coverage of this is this article from Apple triggers ‘religious’ reaction in fans’ brains, report says.

…First, I don’t doubt the fact that Apple “true believers” exhibit religious fervor. They evangelize for Apple, they demonize the (evil) competition, and reject even the mildest, most objective criticism as heresy. If you have any doubt, read the comments on my post,Revealed: How Steve Jobs Turns Customers into Fanatics.

Second, I don’t think that Apple (or any other brand) has found the secret to push some kind of “religion button” in the brain. It’s enticing to fantasize about how powerful that would be, but, like the rest of our brain processes, forming a religious belief is far to complex to accomplish with some clever ads.

Having said that, I think the point I made in my earlier post about Apple’s rivalry strategy does have parallels to organized religion. Religious fervor is often intensified when there is an enemy that can be demonized. The focus on the external threat and emphasizing the differences between the two groups solidifies the faith of the believers. For decades, Apple has exploited this technique, and its true believers spread the message with unrelenting zeal.

A friend of mine made an interesting point tonight: economics depends on the assumption that people behave as rational actors. But there’s a whole field of study and practice that totally disproves that. After all, marketing does all sorts of funny things to us that makes us behave irrationally.

Being Elastic With Faith

I’m thinking of writing something about the rapture which is apparently happening tomorrow, but I just had to share this interview with Tim LaHaye from The Daily Beast (brought to my attention by Patrol):

…do you support waterboarding and other torture methods on prisoners?

When they kill 3,000 of our people or threaten to, you bet. I think that the president should have the right to say yes or no.

Isn’t that very un-Christian? By torturing people to get information, aren’t you being pretty elastic with the Bible?

[Long silence]


I’m thinking. Can’t you smell the wood burning? [Long pause] I think that, in a case where you’re surrounded by murderers—enemies of people that have a record of having no respect for human life—you have to use extreme measures to protect the people. One of the first rules the president accepts is to protect the people of America. We’re not doing a very good job of it.

Wow. This follows a long conversation about what politicians do and don’t qualify as a Christians. LaHaye makes it clear how important it is for people like him to police others:

One thing you have to distinguish is those who claim they’re Christians, but who’ve never had an experience with Jesus. They’re usually people that hardly ever go to church, hardly ever read the Bible, but rather than be atheists or nothing, they say they’re a Christian. Well, that doesn’t make you a Christian.

I suppose the thing to do would be torture them! But my question is, if our “enemies” don’t have any respect for human life, and we don’t have any respect for the human lives of our enemies…

then who is supposed to count as a Christian?

LaHeye falls victim to the othering for which many of us are guilty. We have all sorts of beautiful ethical standards for how we’re supposed to treat fellow believers, but when it comes to our enemies, they don’t qualify. I have friends who feel this way and it’s heartbreaking to see the absolute refusal of one person to acknowledge the humanity of a group of people they’ve never met and who they’ve only learned about through the evening news and people like David Horowitz. One of LaHeye’s qualifiers for who counts as a Christian is people who read their Bible. I’d love to refresh people’s memories with a few verses now:

 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12:14,17-21

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.  But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. – Luke 6:32-35

As a footnote, I’m not arguing this from the idea that people get their just deserts anyway. I’m saying that these are absolutes which we’re supposed to follow regardless. The point of Christianity is not to make excuses for the existing injustices (like LaHeye is trying to do). As John Dominic Crossan would say, it is radical egalitarianism to counter the existing wrongs which can only be addressed through a paradoxical, illogical approach.